I spotted them while shopping with my wife in the Cabo marina. Four 12 meter yachts gracefully resting in their slips like stallions – two black hulls and two white hulls, all with aggressively raked, carbon fiber masts. Multi-million dollar machines with only one purpose – to go fast!
I had heard about them from the hotel concierge. I learned more from the employee behind the desk at Cabo Adventures. At least two boats with paid crew and 12 to 15 gringos as additional crew are matched against each other on a two leg course. Sometimes all four boats race if there are enough paying tourists. The boats are actual America’s Cup contenders put out to pasture, with the only alteration the addition of a diesel engine to maneuver in and out of the marina. They are sleek looking boats with a large cockpit area beginning just aft of the mast and extending to the stern about 4-5 feet deep. The deck is clear of rigging with one large sliding hatch designed to move monster genoas and spinnakers in and out of the hull with great speed and orderliness. There are no lifelines, so the foredeck is only for the surefooted and crew members who are hooked on. Gringos were allowed only in the cockpit and forward of the twin helms. We were to do the heavy work while the Australian Captain and his Latino crew kept us organized and all working together. We were to be the grinders. Oh, did I mention there are no heads aboard? We were adequately advised to make use of the facilities on land before going aboard. It would be three hours of world class racing.
I was assigned as crew aboard “Kiwi”, the New Zealand 2007 Cup contender. Upon leaving the marina the Captain gave us a brief summary of the America’s Cup while we motored beyond the marina opening, the parasailors, glass bottom boats, and cruise ships to more open water. We were then instructed about the use of the grinders. You and your partner face each other and grip the grinder handles so that one person has a grip on the gray handles and the other grips the black handles. The commands are, “grinder’s ready” (you are to grip the handles), “grinder’s forward” or “grinder’s reverse”. That is the only intelligence one needs to be a grinder – the ability to quickly follow instructions.
Our first job was to raise the massive mains’l up the 100 foot carbon fiber mast. All grinder stations are somehow magically linked beneath the cockpit floor by the turn of a few knobs on the cockpit floor by the helmsman. 10 grinders panted and heaved as the mains’l came to life. Winds were shifty and variable and just like our boats on Pepin the main got caught in the lazy jacks and had to be let back down to realign. When the main was properly set the captain turned his steed off the wind and it surged to 10 knots with mains’l only. The captain said hull speed was just over 13 knots. The genoa was unfurled and as the boat bounded ahead at 11.4 knots, I glanced at the water rushing by on the leeward side. Most of the gringos were reacting a bit panicky to the 25 degree heel. I was LOVIN’ it!
At this point the grinding stations were split between the fore and aft teams. Aft was to handle the mainsheet for the massive boom and the fore was to trim the genoa. The jib winches were placed just aft of the fore grinding team so that the tailing crew member could easily pass from side to side without interference. The Harken winches were as big as the rim of a car tire, and like our boats, two speed. Grinding forward operated the winches as high speed and grinding backward reduced the speed for subtle sail trim.
The Captain announced the 10 minute warning horn heard over the VHF radio from the committee boat. Both boats must stay clear of the start line until only 5 minutes remained or face a penalty. We quickly tacked and headed for the start area since we had gone far out to sea and had about two miles to make up. Once in the start area both boats went into a series of controlled jibes both staying relatively clear of each other. We crossed together with Rival (can’t remember the actual name of our contender) having a slight lead. The Captain announced that most races are “won or lost at the start line.” Immediately, Rival tacked toward the shore while we stayed on a tack that took us out to sea. Captain Aussie told us there was better wind further out to sea, because he could “see the darker blue water which meant stronger breezes.” Our distances from each other increased until both boats tacked toward the upwind marker. It turns out the other captain was right as Rival rounded the mark three boat lengths ahead of us. No spinnakers were set because one of them had torn the week before and repairs in San Diego were not yet complete. We sailed broad reaches downwind for the finish line. ”Kiwi” could not make up the distance and lost the race by three lengths.
After a short break a second race was announced. In the final five minutes Rival managed to position himself on our port quarter with his bow about 25 feet off our stern, both boats on a beam to broad reach. Kiwi needed to jibe back toward the start line but Rival would have none of it. A jibe to port would have us positioned for a T-bone collision, and to come up to wind and tack would put us in a bad position to cross the line. When Rival felt he had driven us far enough from the start line, he quickly jibed (as did we) and headed close hauled for the line. We both crossed over a minute late with Rival in the lead. Kiwi was 50 feet behind and the recipient of bad air so we tacked away. That started a tacking duel that lasted the entire upwind leg. Each time we tacked away to get clean air Rival tacked to again shadow us. Nevertheless, we managed to gain a few yards and rounded the mark extremely close. (I attributed it to the superior grinding aboard Kiwi.) The downwind air was unkind to our rival, and that coupled with two or three poorly executed jibes allowed Kiwi to gain ground the entire leg. We won the race by 2 boat lengths.
Sailors are dreamers. My dream to crew on a 12 meter yacht has been achieved and I am better for it. Just being a part of it was priceless!